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Take It In: A few spoonfuls of olive oil a day can help to keep disease away

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Fats were a four-letter word to diet-conscious consumers over the past couple of decades. Then, the concept of “good” fats and “bad” fats hit the news, giving license to eat and enjoy this flavorful nutrient, albeit in specific forms. Good fats are those that are heart healthy and include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. One of the poster children for “good fats” is olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that research shows truly deserves its healthful reputation. What’s more, it tastes good too!

It was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when butter was the choice bread spread and cooking fat in many countries, that nutrition pioneer Ancel Keys and his colleagues observed that people living in parts of Greece and Italy lived longer and experienced less chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer. Keys was convinced this had to do with diet and dubbed the eating style of these folks as the “Mediterranean Diet.” 

One of the chief features of the Mediterranean Diet is the use of olive oil as the principal fat, along with eating whole grain cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables, moderate fish and low amounts of dairy and meats, which are high in saturated (“bad”) fats.

Fast forward more than half a century, and studies now show exactly why olive oil is indeed a “good” fat. It’s not just the monounsaturated chemical structure that keeps olive oil liquid at room temperature and less likely to clog arteries, but its complement of disease-preventing, plant-based substances called polyphenols that come via the olive itself. The science is so strong that the European Food Safety Authority, an agency of the European Union, in 2012 authorized the use of two health claims linking olive oil intake to disease prevention. One claim targets olive oil’s monounsaturated makeup, and the other its rich compliment of polyphenols. 

To reap this oil’s beneficial effects, the EFSA recommends consuming at least 20 grams of olive oil daily, and using this in place of saturated fats such as butter, mayonnaise and dairy-based dressings like blue cheese. Some research, such as that from the PREDIMED (Preventative Mediterranean Diet Study) Study, suggests 37 grams of olive oil daily. One tablespoon of olive oil weighs 13.3 grams, so 2 to 3 tablespoons daily covers this recommendation.

There are several tasty ways to incorporate olive oil into the diet. For example, use as a salad dressing, bread dipper and drizzle for roasted veggies. Also, try olive oil in potato dishes, atop pizzas, over pastas, as a popcorn topper, to make panini sandwiches, and in place of butter or other oils when making quick bread and muffins. 

Olive oil as a marinade for meat, chicken and fish offers added benefits. According to the Washington, DC-based American Institute for Cancer Research, oil in a marinade acts as a barrier between the heat and meat to prevent charring and the formation of potentially cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Olive is the best oil to do this as it is the most stable liquid cooking fat.

There are several types of olive oil available on supermarket shelves, so which is the best to buy? The North American Olive Oil Association, based in Neptune, N.J., offers this simplified advice: Choose extra virgin olive oil, for three reasons. First, it can stand up to the heat of frying, sautéing, baking and roasting. Second, heating it mellows the flavor of the olive oil so all your food won’t taste like olives. Third, it’s perfect right out of the bottle for dipping bread or drizzling over finished dishes.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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